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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the April 16, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Susan Graham Serves a Vocal Banquet
Mezzo soprano Susan Graham thinks of the program that
she will sing with pianist Malcolm Martineau as a five-course meal.
"This is a very high-calorie program," says Graham of her
appearance at McCarter Theatre on Thursday, April 17.
"The appetizer will be Brahms’ `Zigeunerlieder,’ a set of very
spicy Gypsy songs. That’s followed by Debussy’s `Prose Lyrique.’ I
guess that’s the first course, like fish in a beautiful sauce. Then
I’ll sing Alban Berg’s `Seven Early Songs.’ Those are followed by
Poulenc’s `Apollinaire’ songs, which sound so frothy and light and
fun that they don’t seem as hard as they are. Believe me, they’re
wordy, quirky, and fast!" The desert is three operetta selections
from her latest CD.
The disc, Graham’s 15th recording, is Erato’s "C’est ca la Vie,
c’est ca l’amour," named after Moises Simons’ Latin-tinged song.
The 17 insinuating pieces on the disc have a surface simplicity that
floats on a pool of complexity. Interweaving seduction and nostalgia,
Graham’s CD presents an array of sweets from which she has chosen
the dessert for the concert.
"The centerpiece of the concert is Berg," Graham says, in
a telephone interview from her New York City home. "But I always
like to include French music. The Berg and the Debussy are a good
match in weight. The Berg ain’t `Happy Birthday.’ It’s early, before
he was into `Wozzeck.’ There’s some tonal music and some experimenting
with 12-tone music. It has Debussian harmonic language with intense
songs and deep, rich textures.’
"The Debussy songs are unusual. They’re very difficult for piano,
and difficult to sing. They have a difficult emotional range, from
delicate feelings to full throttle drama. We think of Debussy as misty,
vague, water-color-y music. But this set matches the intensity of
the Berg because it’s a richer-colored tapestry. It’s done in oils
instead of watercolors."
Graham and Martineau performed the identical program
in Europe last year, and are using it for a nine-city tour in the
United States. Graham’s Carnegie Hall debut recital was part of the
tour and occurred the Monday of this week, too late for a U.S. 1 review.
Graham is a veteran performer at Carnegie Hall, but she considered
the recital debut a memorable occasion.
"Every five-year-old kid knows about Carnegie Hall," she says.
"It’s the apex of American concert venues. Every time I’ve sung
there, it’s been a great thrill. It’s very comfortable and very cozy.
To be invited to do a solo recital there is a great honor."
Warner Classics will issue a live recording of the event. Speaking
in advance of the recital debut Graham says, "It’s fun and scary
at the same time. The goal is not to get too self conscious in performance.
I hope to give the same performance as if there were no microphones
hanging there; I’m aiming at the same spontaneity and the same musicality."
Graham and Martineau make a point of presenting fresh performances
of the single program on their American tour. "Every time Malcolm
and I do this program, it changes," Graham says. "I change
the shading, or the color of a word. I take an extra breath or leave
out a breath. Malcolm does the same. He takes time lingering over
a pianistic moment, or moving a phrase forward. The music is so rich
that there’s always somewhere else to go with it. It’s glorious music.
When I hear Malcolm’s introduction, I’m so happy. I just love sinking
"There has to be a real symbiosis between pianist and singer,"
Graham says. "Certainly, there is, between Malcolm and me. We
know when each other is going to place a note or chord. We can read
each other’s mind. It’s a timing thing. By watching my body language,
he knows what I’m going to do, and I know what he’s going to do by
"We’re very much in harmony with each other," Graham says,
acknowledging the pun. "We’ve worked together for about five years.
I’m Malcolm’s biggest fan. I would not be nearly as at home on the
recital stage without him. He gives me incredible musical support,
and he’s a good friend. He props me up when I’m nervous, and tells
me things I already know, like, `You’ll be fine.’"
Press coverage of Graham describes her as a tall Texan, with a breezy
demeanor. When I ask her real height, she says, "It depends on
my shoes. In that gown and those shoes" — referring to the
ones she’ll wear at Carnegie Hall — "I’m about six feet one.
In my stocking feet I’m five-ten-and-a-half."
"Concert dress is one of my great fascinations," says Graham.
"When I do a concert with orchestra, where I sing just one piece,
I like to choose attire that will reflect the nature and character
of the music. In recital, I like to choose something that’s flattering,
elegant, not distracting, simple, and classic." She spins out
the adjectives slowly, in the style of a thoughtful fashion journalist.
Graham was born in Roswell, New Mexico, and moved to Midland, Texas,
when she was 13. "My lineage is pioneers who tamed the great Southwest,"
she told Charles Michener for Vogue Magazine. "We’re talking cowboys
and ranchers on both sides. One of my grandfathers came west on a
covered wagon as a little boy, and my mother and father met in a one-room
schoolhouse. My mother still has a ranch — a working ranch.
"For me, being an opera singer is like being a pioneer," she
told David Stearns of BBC Music Magazine. "I come from the cotton
flats where you had to wear an allergy mask four months out of the
year because the dust was so strong. I didn’t see an opera until I
was 18." Her late father, a geophysicist and founder of a successful
oil-exploration firm, didn’t see an opera until Graham was in one.
"There were two main things in my family," she says —
athletics and music. Now 42, Graham’s athletic bent stays with her.
For transportation in New York, Paris, or Salzburg, she often turns
to a bike or roller blades.
Graham’s mother has a gift for playing the piano by ear. One of Graham’s
earliest memories is sitting on her lap and being told which notes
to play. At Midland High School Graham sang in the chorus for school
musicals and played Maria von Trapp in "The Sound of Music"
her senior year.
Attracted by its excellent choral program, she earned a bachelor’s
degree from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, and went on to
graduate training at New York’s Manhattan School of Music. In 1988
she won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions. She made her Metropolitan
Opera House debut in 1991. She regularly appears as soloist with the
world’s best-known orchestras.
While she was establishing herself professionally she
had a seven-year relationship with Edo de Waart, the former music
director of the San Francisco Symphony, 19 years her senior. "Ultimately
we broke up because we were in different places," she says. "He
wanted domesticity, and my career was just beginning to blossom."
Among Graham’s professional triumphs are her portrayals in contemporary
operas. In 1999 she played the athletic Jordan Baker in John Harbison’s
"The Great Gatsby" at the Metropolitan Opera. In 2000 she
portrayed Sister Helen Prejean in San Francisco Opera’s world premiere
of Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s "Dead Man Walking,"
an operatic version of the Oscar-winning film based on the best-selling
Besides the vocal demands In "Dead Man Walking," Graham had
to come to terms with death penalty issues and with portraying a living
person. A few days before the opera opened, Graham met Sister Helen
Prejean, an unassuming, diminutive person at a reception. The nun
expressed her pleasure at being played by Graham. "I always wondered
what it was like to be tall," she said. The encounter affected
Graham’s depiction. "I’d been playing her with a harder edge,"
she said. "Now I saw that she is propelled by humor. She’s this
little dynamo. She walks into a room and you notice nobody else."
Midway through the opera’s run, Graham’s father died of an extended
illness. "It was harrowing for me," she says, "because
I had to cope with death in a very direct way, both as a character
and off-stage with my father. The performance informed my personal
"I live and breathe every song I sing, every character I play,"
Graham says. "I visualize them and feel their feelings. It really
is my own story that I’m singing, on some level. The funny thing is
that I don’t discover what part of my story is in there until I’m
finished rehearsing and learning and I start performing a piece. What
I love about that is being open to it and letting it come spontaneously."
As she herself puts it, "I’m not only an artist. I’m a person.
I think my music has a personal touch." One of Graham’s outlets
for a personal touch is "Notes from Susan" on her website,
www.susangraham.com, where she comments periodically about her
reactions to performing. "I wanted my website to have a personal
touch," she says.
The personal touch on the website shows in the presence of a guest
column by Graham’s poodle, Libby, who claims to be a contributing
editor to the site, and refers to her mistress as "The Noisy One."
Graham observes, "She’s very opinionated, that dog." Almost
14, and about one foot tall, Libby accompanies Graham on tour. This
time, however, she’s staying with Graham’s mother in Texas. "I’ll
have to write about her tenure at Camp Grandma," Graham says.
"Maybe I’ll get my mother to interview her. My mother is hilarious;
she’s very clever."
Hours after I finish talking to Graham I find myself still delighting
in her earthiness and directness. Suddenly, I remember that the reason
for our conversation was her phenomenal mastery of very refined vocal
techniques and her skill at putting them across to an audience. Yet,
I never asked her a thing about her practicing procedures or technical
tricks. I realize that her artistry is not only in her music, but
also in her magical ability to present herself as just another human
— Elaine Strauss
609-258-2787. $30. Thursday, April 17, 8 p.m.
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